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From Middle English sotilte, from Old French sutilté, inherited from Latin subtīlitās, from subtīlis (subtle). Equivalent to subtle +‎ -ty. Doublet of subtility.


  • IPA(key): /ˈsʌt(ə)lti/
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subtlety (countable and uncountable, plural subtleties)

  1. (uncountable) The quality of being subtle.
    1. The quality of being scarcely noticeable or difficult to discern. (of things)
      the subtlety of the Mona Lisa’s smile
      • 1964, Saul Bellow, Herzog[1], New York: Viking, pages 248–249:
        [] he had a lifetime of skill in interpreting his father’s gestures: those bent knees meant that something of great subtlety was about to be revealed.
    2. The quality of being done in a clever way that is not obvious or not direct; the quality of being carefully thought out. (of things)
      the subtlety of a writer’s analysis / of a singer’s phrasing
      Synonym: refinement
    3. The quality of being able to achieve one's aims through clever, delicate or indirect methods. (of people)
      With all his usual subtlety, he quietly fixed the problem before anyone else noticed it.
      Synonyms: discretion, finesse, savoir-faire
      • 1979, William Styron, chapter 3, in Sophie’s Choice[2], New York: Random House, page 74:
        European women often boss their men too, but with a beguiling subtlety unknown to most American females.
    4. The quality of being able to notice or understand things that are not obvious. (of people)
      Synonyms: acumen, perceptiveness, perspicacity
  2. (countable) An instance of being subtle, a subtle thing, especially a subtle argument or distinction.
    The subtleties of this overture are often overlooked.
    Synonyms: nicety, nuance
    • 1561, William Whittingham et al. (translators), Geneva Bible, Wisdom of Solomon 8.8,[4]
      [] she [Wisdom] knoweth the subtilties of wordes, and the solutions of darke sentences:
    • 1661, Robert Boyle, “Physiological Considerations Touching the Experiments Wont to be Employed to Evince either the IV Peripatetick Elements, or the III Chymical Principls of Mixt Bodies. Part of the First Dialogue.”, in The Sceptical Chymist: or Chymico-physical Doubts & Paradoxes, [], London: [] J. Cadwell for J. Crooke, [], →OCLC, pages 14–15:
      For I, and no doubt You, have long obſerved, that thoſe Dialectical ſubtleties, that the Schoolmen too often employ about Phyſiological Myſteries, are vvont much more to declare the vvit of him that uſes them, then increaſe the knovvledge or remove the doubts of ſober lovers of truth. And such captious ſubtleties do indeed often puzzle and ſometimes ſilence men, but rarely ſatisfy them.
    • 1779, David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion[5], Part 10, p. 112:
      It is your turn now [] to support your philosophical subtilties against the dictates of plain reason and experience.
    • 1886 May – 1887 April, Thomas Hardy, chapter 6, in The Woodlanders [], volumes (please specify |volume=I to III), London, New York, N.Y.: Macmillan and Co., published 1887, →OCLC, page 104:
      She could not explain the subtleties of her feeling as clearly as he could state his opinion, even though she had skill in speech, and her father had none.
    • 1952, John Steinbeck, East of Eden[6], London: Heinemann, Part 4, Chapter 36, p. 366:
      His body was as insensitive to pain as was his mind to subtleties.
  3. (countable, historical) An ornate medieval illusion dish or table decoration, especially when made from one thing but crafted to look like another.
    At the king's coronation feast, several subtleties were served between main courses.
    • 1548, Edward Hall, “The triumphaunt reigne of Kyng Henry the .VIII.”, in The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre [and] Yorke[7], London: Richard Grafton:
      the seruice [] was sumpteous, with many subtleties, straunge deuises, with seuerall poses, and many deintie dishes.
  4. (uncountable, countable, archaic) The quality of being clever in surreptitious or deceitful behaviour; an act or argument that shows this quality.
    Synonyms: artifice, craftiness, cunning, deceitfulness, slyness, trickery
  5. (countable, obsolete) A trick that creates a false appearance.
    Synonyms: deception, illusion
  6. (uncountable, obsolete) The property of having a low density or thin consistency.
    • 1630, Thomas Johnson (translator/editor), A Treatise of the Plague [] Collected out of the workes of [] Ambrose Parey, London, Chapter 11, p. 33,[9]
      Therefore at Paris where naturally, and also through the aboundance of filth that is about the Citie, the Aire is darke and grosse, the pestilent Infection is lesse fierce and contagious then it is in Prouince, for the subtletie of the Aire stimulates or helps forward the Plague.
    • 1692, Robert Boyle, General Heads for the Natural History of a Country Great or Small Drawn Out for the Use of Travellers and Navigators[10], London: John Tailor and S. Hedford, page 3:
      About the Air is to be considered, its Temperature as to Heat, Dryness and Moisture, and the Measures of them, its Weight, Clearness, Refractive Power, its Subtilty or Grosness []
  7. (uncountable, obsolete) The property of being able to penetrate materials easily.
    Synonyms: penetrancy, piercingness


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